NZF: Mechanical Ballet

Mechanical Ballet

with Sarah Watkins and Stephen De Pledge

presented by the 2018 New Zealand Festival

Friday 16 March 2018, Hannah Playhouse, Wellington

Sarah Watkins: piano
Stephen De Pledge
: piano
Leonard Sakofsky: percussion
Jeremy Fitzsimons: percussion
Yoshiko Tsuruta: percussion
Justin DeHart: percussion
Jim Murphy: mechatronics engineer
Bridget Johnson: mechatronics engineer
David Downes: mechatronics engineer
Mo Zareei: mechatronics engineer
Michael Norris: director

A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs


Superflux (2018) David Downes (world premiere)
Drumming, Part I (1971) – Steve Reich 
Rasping Music (2014) Mo Zareei
Tidal Flow (2018) – Michael Norris  (world premiere)
Pas de Quatre
(2018) Bridget Johnson  (world premiere)
Piano Phase (1967) Steve Reich
Ballet Mécanique (1924) George Antheil 


The short story (tldr):

Hypnotic. Mesmerising. Fascinating. Confronting. Astounding. Amazing.

Mechanical Ballet was a demonstration and an exploration of ‘musical mechatronics’ – machines, robots, technological automata that played music. I can’t praise enough of the efforts, expertise, talents, inventiveness, innovativeness …. in short, the brilliance, of the team involved in this performance: the Art of Concept and Composer, the Art of Performing, the Art of Programming and Engineering.

An historic performance.


The long story:

Mechanical Ballet was a demonstration and an exploration of ‘musical mechatronics’ – machines, robots, technological automata that can ‘play’ music.

The setting of the Hannah Playhouse stage was packed full of (possibly) instruments: three upright player piano, two grand pianos, four diverse bass drums and gong, a drum kit, four xylophones, a row of a dozen or more bongos, four mounted speakers, a table with four light tubes, a host of laptops/mixers/computer keyboards/interfaces, seven bells and sirens, three propellers like clock faces  with ornate, oversize hands, and lots and lots of leads, plugs and wires.  Before the performance a player piano entertained us with ambient ‘beautiful music’: an ironic term I suppose – Chopin, the first of a Bach prelude, the first two notes of Beethoven’s ‘Fur Elise’, a popular film score song, a circus song …. a perfunctory, emotionless performance by a uninterested and talentless player.

When the programme began, a spotlight identified the instruments that were playing.

Superflux was created by David Downes with electronics and programming assistance from David Crossan. It was an automatic drum kit solo with drones and tones humming along, a fascinating and aural pyrotechnic work. The precision of the technology was awesome – the dynamics, the timing, the juxposition of techniques were ‘striking’ [I use the pun/word advisedly!]  David Downes is an ingenious, innovative, creative musician. This piece was a realisation of his talent for composition to the acoustic sound without a need for a performer. The Art of Concept, the Art of the Engineer, and an Art of the Programmer.

[Actually, it was the only piece in the programme that was fully automated. Mo Zareei and Bridget Johnson’s pieces had input from the composers in their realisation of their works. All of rest of the pieces had ‘performing’ humans – I use the word unadvisedly!]

Steve Reich’s minimalistic work Drumming dates from 1971. Usually the piece is played by human percussionists, but for this concert the first percussion part was played by a robot – a flicking, unchanging, brusque pattern of beats on four bongos. The four human percussionists added their parts on the rest of the row of bongos – pairs, trios, quartets, quintets – building a complex rhythmic, relentless pattern by interference phase shifting. The visual element was captivating – the dynamic shifts increased the blur of the drumstick motions. Hypnotic and mesmerising. Bongos are unpitched percussion instruments but, after a while, I heard a hum of overtones, an harmonic series above the initial strike of the drumheads. I was amazed that the players could keep track of the inexorable rhythm and finish the piece with a flourish!

Mo Rareei’s Rasping Music was clearly inspired by Drumming. The phase shifting had a conspicuous visual element – four mounted fluorescent tubes. The ‘rasping’ in the title of his piece was the result of lighting the tubes in quick succession. Mo was based on a computer keyboard adding live sounds to the rasping pulse -– building a climax of beeping and humming tones. In the post-show talk, Mo said he wants ‘to exploring the boundary of comfort’. Again – hypnotic and mesmerising. The after-image of the four lights were almost an optical illusion that matched the aural illusion of the rhythmic patterns. It was a compelling work, but clearly some people thought it was too uncomfortable or confronting to bear.

Michael Norris described his Tidal Flow as a ‘palate cleanser’ and it did make the most of the skills and the diversity of the human percussionists and a visual spectacle. The four percussionists were on a balcony at the back of the stage with their diverse array of instruments. Below them were four mounted drums of various sizes and a gong with automated strike-plates attached. Michael had his percussionists use the gongs, triangles, cow bells, wood blocks with water bath, alternating the pitch of their ‘unpitched’ sounds. He used thumb pianos, bowed techniques, rain sticks, angklung [Indonesian instrument of several bamboo tubes attached to a bamboo frame], and whistle instrument coiled around the percussionists body like a boa constrictor. The bass drums and the gongs were almost incidental, an after-thought. It did make a contrast to the other pieces in the programme and it was a subtle, organic and oddly beautiful work.

Bridget Johnson’s Pas De Quatre was literally an aural mechanical ballet. Bridget has been exploring the acoustic space of various venues with her ‘speaker.motion’ for some time now. She has mounted compact speakers on frame that tilt and rotate in any direction. This time, she had the speaker generate a heartbeat that developed to hums and drones on various pitches. Each speaker tilted up from the floor to the roof, and then they spun around, at different rate, bouncing the sound around on the concrete walls of the Hannah Playhouse stage.

Steve Reich wrote Piano Phase in 1967 and Sarah Watkins and Stephen De Pledge performed this work with perseverance, persistence and uppermost skill. It didn’t involve any robot or automata but the relentless, repetitive rhythm and the lack of dynamics made it a candidate for this ‘exploration of the spectrum of mechatronic music making’. Sarah began the piece with a simple chordal pattern and Stephen matched that exactly. Then the phase shift made the chordal patterns alter. I am not belittling this piece, but I was reminded of a joke: A man wanted to see if his car indicator light were working, so he called his neighbour over. “Are they working?” he said. The neighbour said: ” Yes they are working … no, they are not … yes they are … no … yes  … no…  When I listened to Piano Phase to chords were ‘right’, then they were not -– the phase shifted to discomfortable listening. A few minutes later, they were right again, but with a different pattern of harmonies and rhythm accents. Notes ‘pop’ in to the lead, reinforced or amplified by the rhythm, but only momentarily – their prominence was destroyed by phase change and another took it place. Fascinating! Just like Drumming I was amazed that the players could keep track of the unremitting rhythm and finish the piece with a jubilant flourish!

In essence, the whole programme was focussed on this last piece. George Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique was written in 1924, almost a hundred years ago, but the 1926 premiere was reduced from 16 player pianos to four. The original score was only performed in 1992. For this performance, we had a reduced score too – but Hannah Playhouse stage was a compact and closer environment too. The automatic part of the score was taken by the four bass drum and tam-tam, seven bells and sirens, three propellers and three player pianos [not four?] The human players performed on two grand pianos and four xylophones. The piece erupted with all forces engaged: tonal clusters, rapid notes and flurries of arpeggios from all the instruments – human and robots – with sirens, bells, drums, gongs and propellers entering the fray at appropriate times. The incredible xylophonists were in synch, and Sarah and Stephen were monumental in their thundering chords across the whole of the pianos. Phil Spector had his Wall of Sound in 1960, but this pre-empted that! The dynamics for each instruments were loud or louder. Dynamic variations were stratified when some of the instruments were silent for a moment.
It was quite literally [I used the word advisedly] AMAZING!
At the conclusion of the piece, the human players left the stage and let the ‘robots’ do the conclusion of the piece – maybe a salient point for humanity?

The post-show talk was coordinated by Sally Jane Norman, Director and Professor at New Zealand School of Music Te Kōkī at Victoria University Wellington. Michael Norris, Jim Murphy, Mo Zareei and Bridget Johnston discussed their concepts, ideas, explanations, philosophies and ultimately answered questions. I wish I had a recording of the responses: they were so articulate and eloquent.

One of the questions was the role of the ‘robot’ and technology versus the skilled, talented, virtuosic human performer. Bridget said that she focuses of what the technology can do best, the timbres and the precision involved, and add that to what the player can perform. Jim said that he conceives the ‘robot’ as a prosthetic extension of the performer and concentrates of the interaction of the robot and the human. But, pragmatically, he added: ‘It was a good performance – nothing fell off.”

I can praise enough of the efforts, expertise, talents, inventiveness, innovativeness …. in short, the brilliance of the team involved in this performance: the Art of Concept and Composer, the Art of Performing, the Art of Programming and Engineering. An historic performance.


From SOUNZ the Centre of New Zealand Music:

David Downes

Michael Norris

Mo Zareei

From the universities:

Michael Norris, Jim Murphy, Mo Zareei, Bridget Johnson

From Youtube and facebook:

Stroma’s rehearsal of George Antheil’s Ballet Mecanique

Steve Reich’s Drumming

Steve Reich’ Piano Phase visualisation: here or here.

David Downes’ Superflux drum kit


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